University officials respond to ongoing situation regarding derogatory LGBT+ comments

IAN LACK Reporter

University officials have met with a student who was targeted with derogatory LGBT+ messages written on his residence hall door and are analyzing the situation.

The South Dakota State University Residential Life and Human Resources offices reached out to Tanner Johnson to gather information and offer support, while encouraging students to report any concerns about situations like this to their offices.

While it cannot be determined that the messages written are related to the election, the writing draws similarities to hate crimes that have been reported across the country.

Three derogatory messages were written on a dry erase board on Johnson’s residence hall door after he hung a gay pride flag on the door on Nov. 9. Johnson is a junior history education major and identifies as bisexual.

After this, Johnson took the board on his door down, but left the pride flag to show that “people can’t get away with things like this just by bullying them.”

“It worries me that people think this way, but it doesn’t make me feel unsafe. I’ll be putting the board back up eventually, even with the possible risk of this happening again,” Johnson said.

Johnson met with Residential Life representatives following the incidents. He also met with Title IX officials on Nov. 23 to discuss the messages written on his door.

Director of Residential Life Jeff Hale confirmed that his office has contacted both the University Police Department and Title IX officials. He has been in communication with Johnson and has met to offer counsel to him after the first message appeared.

“Thankfully, this behavior is not indicative of our students at SDSU. We have campus resources available to students too, like the GSA and counseling services,” Hale said. “We have had situations like this in the past related to discrimination, but those situations have not been frequent and when they do occur they are dealt with sincerity.”

In his meeting with Title IX officials, Johnson said he discussed the writing and what can be done to educate students within the campus about differences in identity.

Michelle Johnson, Title IX and Equal Opportunity Coordinator, said Human Resources cannot confirm that there is an investigation for the safety of the student involved.

She said it is important for students to report any questions on incidents that happen to them on campus as soon as possible.

Doug Wermedal, associate vice president of student affairs, said there will likely be a Title IX and law enforcement investigation into the messages. There will also be a meeting held on Johnson’s floor following Thanksgiving Break.

“When students are impacted by something like this, we have the responsibility to respond every time,” Wermedal said. “We remain constantly vigilant in maintaining the safety of our students, but our ability to educate tolerance is something we pursue vigorously.”

Semehar Ghebrekidan, sociology graduate student and Students’ Association senator, said she has received several incidents of discrimination based on her race as an African American student. In several circumstances, Ghebrekidan said she was called racial slurs, both verbally and in writing.

Following Title IX investigations with Ghebrekidan, she felt as if Human Resources had not done enough.

“All Title IX did was send me a letter saying they were basically ‘sorry’ and that there wasn’t enough evidence to do anything every time something happened,” Ghebrekidan said. “It just really sucks when you have discrimination and attacks directed at you, and they aren’t able to do anything about it.”

Ghebrekidan said she is worried that this may be related to the recent presidential election, given the amount of hate crimes that have been reported by news media.

Johnson said he taped the flag to his door, not as a response to the result of the presidential election, but as an expression of his bisexuality and a way to make his door “look pretty.”

Johnson believes it is possible that the messages on his door may have been related to the presidential election, but said “those things would have been written whether there was an election or not.”

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said hate crimes against Jewish people, African Americans and LGBT+ individuals has increased since the election results were announced.

Students’ Association Senator Amanda Dickson, a junior pharmacy major, identifies as a conservative libertarian and voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. She said she does not condone the words written on Johnson’s door.

“What happened to this student doesn’t represent conservative values or Donald Trump supporters at all, only possibly a minor group of us,” Dickinson said. “We need to have respect for all people, even if we are different.”

After Johnson received the messages on his door, he said he has been fortunate to receive community support, including an anonymous message of support that was delivered under his door recently.

“This doesn’t affect the way that I look at myself, mainly because of the amount of support that I’ve gotten from people,” Johnson said. “It’s been really great to receive support from my family and friends and everyone from GSA.”